Bem Vindo a Portugal

Coronavirus was riding hard on our tail. Incidence rates were spiking across the northern provinces of Spain, the travel bridge with the UK had collapsed, so we fled to Portugal.

We drove out of Galicia on empty motorways and over huge bridges that looked down upon a world of faraway bays, rivers, and ravines. There was hardly anyone on the roads so we felt free to slow right down and drink in the view. The kids were deep in their Kindles and Menna and I listened to music, checked Covid stats and ruminated on where in the world we might eventually end up. We had surfed in the morning and still felt the tang of salt on our skin. It seemed we might go anywhere.

We were worried about what checkpoints and controls we might have to go through to cross the border though (do we have our travel insurance documents? Is there some form we should have filled in? Will we get temperature checked?), but in the end we just drove over the Minho river unremarked. ‘Bem-vindo a Portugal’ says a sign, and it’s done.

Our first stay in Portugal is on the coast, 100km south of the border. We cruise through Porto, wishing we could stop. We drive along the dusty roads of the Beira province, along tarmac which deteriorates with every kilometre southwards, where old men in hats sit out at the roadside with offerings of squash and pumpkins. Through the deserted streets of Mira we cruise, and a small boy on a scooter stares wide-eyed at our loaded English car as if we were the armoured cavalry rumbling through his town. We have picked up some deep electro-country beats on the radio and now in the heat haze, everything through the windscreen seems like it’s moving in slow motion.

And as we drift along, feeling strangely stoned, I realise that this is something that I associate with Portugal. This sense of temporal dislocation, a winding down of the clock. There is a different time scale here, it is a slow moving dance that is elegant but tinged with mournfulness. There is something in the architecture, the bullock cart full of watermelons, the town squares where the old men sit out. You see it in the young girls with their dark eyes on the boardwalk, even as they smile and chatter together.

There is a Portuguese word which has no direct translation in English. It is saudade, a suggestion of melancholy and nostalgia mingled in various ways. It is the dream of something that has not yet happened, or something that could not happen, or something that will never happen again. It is deep in the music and the literature of Portugal (think fado). It’s not an active sadness though so much as a sense of vague pleasant wistfulness.

I think of a people only loosely tethered to the present, drifting through slow courteous interactions, smiles tinged with a sad charm, always half-imagining a better world that is somehow denied to them.

In the wild seas off Portugal, saudade surfers skim offhandedly across huge Atlantic breakers, dreaming mournfully of perfect waves that could never be.

I explain this theory to Menna in some depth but her view of Portugal is different.
“But even the small towns here seem to have a real sense of community,” she says, “The houses are brightly coloured and people gather together, chatting on street corners and outside bars. There’s much more soul than in some of the empty towns we saw in Spain. Everyone seems happy to me.”

I concede that this is true on the surface, but I hold onto my theory that somewhere beneath there is a deep melancholic vein of saudade, It feels poetic and I’m in that kind of mood.

Menna and I work out that apart from Italy, where my parents live, Portugal is the country that we have most visited together: this will be our eighth trip. We love this place. There is something in the faded elegance and courtesy, the relaxed hospitality, that pulls us back. We too live through wistful moments of detachment, I think secretly to myself, where reality can never match the impossible ideal. We dream of the life that we might lead, the places where we could be, the people we might become.

“Saudade. A pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”

Manuel de Melo

“A vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present.,, [it is] not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.”

Aubrey Bell.

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